‘This reeks of discrimination’: Moscow theologians shaking interfaith friendship in Tatarstan

A fatwa of the Russian Muslim Spiritual Directorate on the prohibition of marriage with Christian and Jewish women has caused an outcry in the Muslim centre and criticism of the expert community

‘This reeks of discrimination’: Moscow theologians shaking interfaith friendship in Tatarstan
Photo: Maksim Platonov

The decision of the Russian Muslim Spiritual Directorate on the prohibition of marriage between Muslim men and female representatives of other religions has caused an ambiguous response in Russia’s Muslim community. Tatarstan’s muftiate chaired by Kamil Samigullin has also criticised the fatwa of his Moscow colleagues. Moreover, it isn’t the first case of theological discrepancies between the spirituality in Kazan and Moscow. The zest of the situation is added by the fact that the Russian directorate made this decision as early as a year ago. Experts of Realnoe Vremya didn’t understand Ravil Gaynutdin’s rhetoric either.

Last year’s fatwa that has caused a commotion now

The Muslim Spiritual Directorate of the Russian Federation (MSD) chaired by Ravil Gaynutdin has published a theological statement according to which interfaith marriages weren’t permitted and were allowed only “in isolated cases”. Moreover, not only pagans or atheists whose prohibition is clear enough but the representatives of “people of the Script” (Christians and Jews). So Muslim men are banned from marrying brides who have another religion. The fatwa of the Russian MSD reads that “a Muslim woman can’t marry a man who doesn’t identify himself with the Muslim community regardless of the views and beliefs he follows”.

This document’s authors believe that an interfaith marriage leads to troubles in the family and problems with children’s education. Moreover, such a union “reduces Muslim women’s chances of finding a spouse of the same religion forcing them to marry non-Muslims, which is canonically prohibited”.

The Council of Ulamas of the Russian MSD ruled that “interfaith marriages particularly with female representatives of the Script’s people were prohibited in the territory of Russia and were possible only in certain cases according to a local mufti’s decision who considers and takes all circumstances of this specific case into account”.

However, if a potential spouse of a Muslim man “recognises the one God, accepts Jesus and Muhammad as God’s messengers and expresses her readiness to follow the Holy Quran’s instructions, she may marry a Muslim man”.

We should note that this document was signed as early as in 2019, however, the mass media paid attention to it only now. And such a decision has caused an ambiguous response in the Muslim community. For instance, Tatarstan Mufti Kamil Samigullin explained previously that Sharia allowed a Muslim man to marry a Christian or Jewish woman. In other words, she must be one of the Script’s people, not an atheist or a pagan. Moreover, if a man isn’t Muslim while the woman is Muslim, they can’t marry each other. Head of the Spiritual Council of Muslims of Russia Albir Krganov disagreed with the Russian MSD too.

Kamil Samigullin explained previously that Shariah allowed a Muslim man to marry a Christian or Jewish woman. In other words, she must be one of the Script’s people, not an atheist or a pagan. Photo: Maksim Platonov

Tatarstan MSD is authorised to claim

In reply to Realnoe Vremya’s request, the Tatarstan Muslim Spiritual Directorate expressed categorical disagreement with the fatwa of the Russian MSD.

“The Council of Ulamas of the Tatarstan Muslim Spiritual Directorate declares its disagreement with the statement of the Russian MSD on interfaith marriage”, Kamil Samigullin’s organisation claimed.

As the press service of the muftiate explained, the position of the Tatarstan MSD on interfaith marriage is based on direct interpretation of ayahs of the Holy Quran and madhhab traditions and was voiced by the management of the Tatarstan MSD earlier.

“According to the provisions of the Hanafi school of law, which is the most spread in the Russian Federation, a Muslim man may marry representatives of the Script’s people who are Christians and Jews. This rule was in force before the appearance of madhhabs, at the beginning of the era of Islam and has conserved its power till now. Moreover, we consider that it is extremely important to save interfaith peace and harmony in issuing theological statements in the Russian Federation,” reads the reply of the press service of the Tatarstan MSD.

We should note that this isn’t the first contradiction between the Muslim spirituality of Moscow and Kazan. Ravil Gaynutdinov’s structures (the Russian MSD and Russia’s Council of Muftis) had already had a disagreement with the Tatarstan muftiate: for instance, regarding Tatar Friday sermons, the prohibition of Wahhabism and the Grozny fatwa.

“This influence isn’t spread here in Tatarstan”

“The concern of the Muslim community and the Russian MSD is clear: there are a lot of interethnic and interfaith marriages now, the national and religious identity is blurring. And the origin of the issue of interfaith marriages in Russia date back to the Soviet era. And during the period of spiritual revival, the number of such mixed families hasn’t decreased,” comments Rector of the Russian Islamic Institute, Vice Chairman of the Tatarstan Muslim Spiritual Directorate Rafik Mukhametshin.

The head of the institute admitted that he didn’t know the reason for such a fatwa of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of the Russian Federation.

“If we go by canonically the Hanafi madhhab we follow, here such marriages [with Christian and Jew women] are allowed,” says Mukhametshin. “At least such a fatwa hasn’t been considered at the Council of Ulamas of the Tatarstan MSD in the Republic of Tatarstan. Though they [the Russian MSD] spread their decision across the Russian Federation, this influence isn’t spread here in Tatarstan. Our own decisions are made after the mufti, the Council of Ulamas’ consideration.”

The head of the institute admitted that he didn’t know the reason for such a fatwa of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of the Russian Federation. Photo: realnoevremya.ru

According to him, neither do other Islamic schools of law (madhhabs) have such a strict ban on interfaith marriages (for instance, the Shafi madhhab has certain caveats).

“As there is no ban on such marriages in Tatarstan, here in the republic I don’t see problems,” Hazrat Rafik concluded.

“It doesn’t reflect contemporary Russia’s realities”

Orientalist Renat Bekkin pays attention to the unclear attribution of certain religion of the majority of Russia’s population, especially Russians. Moreover, the country has an extremely low amount of classic pagans a marriage with whom is certainly banned by Sharia. Moreover, the fatwa indicates the “young woman”, it isn’t considered if she is married for the first time, if she is the first or second wife or a widow, etc.

“It is unclear who we are talking about. It doesn’t reflect contemporary Russia’s realities. It would be useful to put other accents. It might be topical for minorities. And for this purpose, a separate fatwa could be issued, and they could say, for instance, no problem if Russians mix with other nationalities, while it isn’t very good for minorities from a perspective of conservation of national culture.”

Bekkin reminded us that some imams in Russia don’t welcome interreligious and interethnic marriages, including ex-Mufti of Tatarstan Gusman Iskhakov. Photo: kazanreporter.ru

He reminded us that some imams in Russia don’t welcome interfaith and interethnic marriages, including ex-Mufti of Tatarstan Gusman Iskhakov.

“This reeks of religious discrimination”

Russian Arabist, regional ethnographer, expert in Islamic studies Pavel Gusterin considers that decision of the Russian MSD might be just a recommendation, it isn’t a legal document.

“What consequences can it have for Muslims? None. Won’t they be allowed to enter a mosque? Entrance to the mosque as well as to the church is free and possible for representatives of all religions. And how will it be possible to track who married whom?” Gusterin asks questions.

In his opinion, such a decision is allowed as a recommendation: it isn’t desirable to marry people who take religion seriously. Young people who just married can have a more serious attitude to religion with time, this can lead to serious problems. And all such issues should be discussed from the get-go.

“The restriction of Russian citizens’ rights isn’t allowed, this reeks of religious discrimination,” the expert in Islamic studies thinks. “Everything starts in a small way: the ban on marriages first, then there will be other restrictions, and one can go too far. This is not good. I don’t welcome it as an expert in Eastern studies because it is a small step to interfaith conflicts. How should the families that already have interethnic marriages do? Should they divorce? This can create such a schism in society, it can lead to so many human tragedies! This isn’t serious, to be honest, I didn’t expect the MSD to dare to do this.”

Pavel Gusterin considers that decision of the Russian MSD might be just a recommendation, it isn’t a legal document. Photo: youtube.com

At the same time, he sees some truth in the decision of Gaynutdinov’s structure: people who have different religions and create a family should think 10 times about religious issues and certainly discuss this with their parents because indeed there might be serious problems in family life in the future.

“If you love somebody, please, marry, don’t ask for permission”

Journalist and political expert Maksim Shevchenko finds this decision of the Russian MSD fair enough.

“It is an absolutely fair remark for believers,” the expert claims. “If a person isn’t Orthodox, he has nothing to do with it. Muslim women shouldn’t marry non-Muslims. Christians have the same thing: Orthodox Christians can’t marry Catholics or Protestants, not to mention Muslims. What we are discussing is no sensation! We live in the post-modernist space — and these are games...”

Shevchenko was quite unclear about the permission for religious clerics to create a family.

“If you love somebody, please, marry, don’t ask for permission. If you ask for permission, be sure of such rules. You play according to either religious or secular rules. And you have a rule of the heart and your feelings. I think it is rubbish when priests start to indicate what marriages are strong. Those marriages are strong in which people respect and love each other. Those marriages that don’t respect each other, no matter how religious they are, will ruin!” he says.

Journalist and political expert Maksim Shevchenko finds this decision of the Russian MSD fair enough. Photo: Oleg Tikhonov

“Somebody is trying to rock the boat”

Historian, expert in Islamic studies Aydar Khabutdinov paid attention to the fact that a link to the theological rule of the Council of Ulamas that one must marry traditionally in the presence of the bride’s caretaker, that’s to say, with the permission of a representative of the elder generation, recently appeared on the website of the Russian MSD. The document on the undesirable interfaith marriages was adopted by the Council of Ulamas of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of the Russian Federation on 19 November 2019.

“The same thing exists in Orthodoxy, Christians might marry non-Christians in the Russian Empire only if the latter changed their religion,” he says. “In other words, legally, it was stricter.”

At the same time, the scientist wonders who authorised the Russian MSD to prohibit or permit marriages. He partly understands why the muftiate made such a decision.

“How can the Council of Ulamas of the Spiritual Directorate, that’s to say, a purely expert and consultancy body, to prohibit somebody from marrying a person? Neither it nor the whole Spiritual Directorate has such power. All this is just a personal opinion about what young people should think if they should link their fate with representatives of another religion, but this opinion can’t have any legal foundation. A representative of every religion prefers to marry representatives of his religion because the main function of any family of any religion is to create and bring up children. Of course, everybody prefers bringing children up in his religion, otherwise, both the parents and the child will be split,” he noted.

Aydar Khabutdinov wonders who authorised the Russian MSD to prohibit or permit marriages. Photo: islam-today.ru

In his opinion, the Council of Ulamas of the Russian MSD is just a consultancy, it chooses a topical issue. Society has a lot of mixed marriages, and people ask if this is good or bad.

“The Council of UIamas [of the Russian MSD] doesn’t have any power, marriages are registered in the office, it is a public agency,” Khabutdinov goes on. “Why has this topic arisen now all of a sudden? It seems to me that this has coincided with those external political events happening in the south of Russia’s border. Somebody is trying to rock the boat on religious grounds, and this isn’t much desirable.”

“Tatars didn’t have problems”

Docent of the Department of Regional and Islamic Studies of the Institute of Oriental Studies and International Relations of Kazan Federal University Azat Akhunov named the news “strange” and reminded us that all “Muslim spiritual directorates of Russia go by canons according to which a Muslim can marry people from the Script, Christian and Jews, if we put it simply, including Tatars didn’t have problems here.”

“Other schools in the Caucasus, for instance, have restrictions that in fact make such marriages impossible. Why? I started to think if this isn’t PR. The Russian MSD has recently been severely criticised, including on Telegram channels. Isn’t it a desire to draw attention to itself? Though in society a mufti and muftiate can issue such theological statements. A mufti makes decisions on the basis of his knowledge, experience. Here we can also see an attempt at warning Tatars to think about that a family should be created with people who have the same faith, but interethnic marriages have always existed. The authors of this decision worry about the future of the Tatars and warn that this isn’t approved from a religious perspective. It is strange that the Council of Muftis of Russia hasn’t been seen do this. Religious activists may not be invited for customs. Muslims directly address Allah, and a group of Muslims can perform any custom without an intermediary, without a mufti. A Muslim himself must know ancient Islam,” Akhunov thinks.

Azat Akhunov noted that we lived in a secular country and every citizen must obey Russian laws. Photo: islam-today.ru

The interlocutor of the newspaper noted that we live in a secular country and every citizen must obey Russian laws. “And if a person is very religious, he should rest on the mufti’s opinion. But the decision of the Council of Muftis has a caveat: there may be exceptions that can be considered by a mufti. This is strange again: we live by secular laws. Why should a mufti decide? And the third variant of the reason for such a statement is a desire to take control of the master of Muslims’ destines,” the expert assumes.

By Timur Rakhmatullin, Yekaterina Ablayeva, Eleonora Rylova
Tatarstan